About the Editor

Elizabeth Swarbrick, the woman who helped start St Catherine's Hospice, talks about her other 'home' in Uganda, and the book about one of her dearest friends.

Elizabeth, Bishop Geresom and Mama Lois in Garstang Elizabeth, Bishop Geresom and Mama Lois in Uganda

By her own admission, Elizabeth Swarbrick has started a lot of things - she set up midwifery training at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, was the first matron of St Catherine's Hospice in Lostock Hall in 1984, and has been a key part of an education programme tackling HIV and AIDS in Africa.

Now she is starting on a new chapter, having just released a book about the life of her friend, Ugandan Bishop Geresom Ilukor.

 

Elizabeth, who was born in Preston but now lives in Garstang, first went to Uganda in 1970 as a newly-qualified midwife.  She was one of a team of eight from the Anglican Church Missionary Society working at Ngora Hospital, a Church of Uganda facility in the Teso District.

She said: "It wasn't how I expected.  I expected it to be bush land, but we had running water, electricity, reasonable facilities.  We didn't have incubators, but we had oxygen and everything we did was to a good standard.  There's nothing really primitive about their culture; it's all at the correct standards."

Elizabeth, now 70, first met Bishop Geresom Ilukor when she was taking her Ugandan language exams.

She said "When I first went to Uganda you weren't properly accepted until you'd done your language exam.  When I was doing my language studies Geresom was the Diocesan Treasurer and I used to sit on the doorstep of his office and we got to know one another."

1976 was to prove a monumental year for Geresom, who was made Bishop, and for Elizabeth, who was removed from the country because of political unrest under the dictatorship of Idi Amin.

She said: "It was a very vicious and violent time, but I didn't feel really threatened, you just got on with your job."

Elizabeth returned home and began midwifery work in Lancaster, but did not lose touch with her Ugandan friends.  In 1984, around the same time, she was helping to set up St Catherine's Hospice, she was invited to return and has been involved in medical and education work ever since, during visits of up to three months at a time.

She has gained a foster daughter, Angela, and said she feels very lucky to have two "homes"; one in the UK and the other in Uganda.

She said: "I feel fully accepted by the community in Uganda, it's very special."

Elizabeth's friendship with Bishop Geresom Ilukor developed further during her regular visits, and when insurgents started carrying out attacks in the late 80s and early 90s, he made sure that she remained safe.  She said: "At that time it really wasn't safe to travel in the area.  There were only two vehicles that the insurgents would not fire on - the hospital vehicle and the Bishop's.  I used to travel on the hospital vehicle, and the Bishop lent me the use of his as well.

It was a terrible, terrible time and he was a very courageous and generous man.  A man of great stature who, although was very quietly spoken, held the place together."

On a recent trip to Uganda, helping with community education work, Elizabeth decided that she wanted to write a book about the Bishop's life, and tentatively asked him for permission.

She said: "He was a very humble man who had gone back to live in poverty after he retired.  When I asked him if I cold write about his life he said no, and then after a while he gave me what he'd written down about his experiences."

Elizabeth quickly scrambled to find a friend's laptop to start typing up the notes into book form, and asked the Bishop to look over her progress.

Sadly, Bishop Geresom Ilukor died two weeks after Elizabeth's return to the UK, after being bitten by a cobra while he went to get millet from a storeroom for the needy.

To honour his memory, Elizabeth continued to type up his life story and, with the help of his family and a Ugandan scholar, has completed the work which is now available online.

She said: "I haven't changed any of the words, it's his voice and I think he would be pleased.  I feel overwhelmed to have been asked to write the book, but sad that I haven't been able to speak to him about it.  He was such an amazing man that I want more people to know about his work."

Elizabeth said her experiences in Uganda directly influenced her decision to apply for the position of Matron at St Catherine's, when there was "just me, a desk and a caretaker".

She said: "It was because of my experience in Uganda during the Idi Amin times that I applied for the job at St Catherine's.

I saw there how people dealt with death - the fact of just being there for people.  You don't have to say anything, you just have to be there, it's a comforting thing.

I also had experience of helping families who had a stillborn baby or a baby who died not long after birth.  You find a lot of midwives working in hospices because we are enablers.

Midwives help families welcome new life into the world, and in palliative care, you help them to deal with the other end of the spectrum."

Taken from an interview with Catherine Musgrove of the Lancashire Evening Post.